U96 interviewed about collaborating with Wolfgang Flür on “Transhuman”

Photo by Markus Luigs

With Transhuman, two pioneers of German electronic music have united to create a bold new sound. Wolfgang Flür was Kraftwerk’s drummer from 1972 to 1987 and has gone on to such projects as Time Pie, Eloquence, and the upcoming Magazine. U96 is best known for the techno classic “Das Boot” (1991) and followed it up with such hits as “Love Sees No Colour,” “Night In Motion,” and “Heaven.” Featuring robotic rhythms, intricate melodic elements, and atmospheric synths, Transhuman draws upon the musicians’ pasts, while sounding thoroughly modern. In the following interview, U96 member Hayo Lewerentz discusses the making of the album.

How did you come to work with Wolfgang Flür?

Hayo Lewerentz: Initially, we met at the Popkomm Fair, a music fair in Cologne, like 15 years ago, a very long time ago. We briefly met, and then we occasionally spoke on the phone, just discussing stuff for music. But in the end, I met him again at a literature fair here in Hamburg, where he was reading from one of his books. I got him this little gig here, so we met again, and then we talked about maybe doing some music together. This is how it came up.

Ingo and I work in our studio here in Hamburg, and we were sending things back and forth. We started with two songs, which were originally on our last album, Reboot. These were “Zukunftsmusik” and “Hildebrandslied.” They turned out so well, we thought, and he did too, so we decided to create a whole album together. This is how it came about.

Having discussed music, did you and Wolfgang have a clear idea of what you wanted to accomplish together?

Hayo Lewerentz:  Well, to be honest, in the beginning, not really. We didn’t really know. So we had these two songs, which we created together. We sent him some stuff that we created, like a backing track sort of thing. He worked on it and sent it back. So it went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, for quite some time. This is how we created, in the end, a sound out of our two legacies. We took the way we work and the way he works, and we put it all together to try to generate a new sound out of that. It took some time, but in the end, it was quite interesting. It took nearly one and a half years before we had this album finished.

In his book I Was a Robot, Wolfgang mentions he would have liked Kraftwerk to be involved with outside collaborations, and he’s gone on to be part of many different projects. What is he like as a collaborator?

Hayo Lewerentz: He’s got a strong collaborative nature. He was very open regarding the stuff we sent him, so he was not like, “Oh no, I just do this, or I just do that.” Which people hear a lot about his old band Kraftwerk. They were really complicated. I don’t think they ever worked with someone else. But he’s a very, very open guy to work with. He’s got ideas, we have ideas, and we put them all together. He always liked what we did, and we liked what he did. So it worked out very well in the end.

I read that you used some algorithmic composition on the album?

Hayo Lewerentz: Yes. We were talking about the album title Transhuman, and we said, you know, to make it sound special, we should also use some really “now” technology.

 We thought about artificial intelligence, and letting the computer create a melody. We gave the computer information about the harmony and the beats. So some of the melody bits in the instrumental songs have been created by the computer. Of course, we’ve fine-tuned everything in the end, but basic ideas on two songs came from the computer.

Which songs are those?

Hayo Lewerentz: One is called “Clone,” and the other one is called “Transhumanist.” In the end, the final thing was changed a little bit by us again. So we didn’t take it as it was; we just took it as an inspiration and then finalized it the way we thought it should be. So we just used it as a fun bit for us.

It’s a fairly long album. Does it represent all the material U96 and Wolfgang Flür worked on?

Hayo Lewerentz: No, we were pretty picky. I think we created about 40 layouts for that album, and not all of them made it on. But we liked quite a lot. So, in the end, we decided to make it 14 tracks, which is a lot, and the two bonus tracks. They are a single, which was done by us, by U96, alone. Wolfgang is not involved in these two. It’s just because some fans said, “Could you please put the single on the album?” So that’s what we did.

We were looking at the whole picture, and we thought these 14 tracks worked together. Some of the other tracks were very techno-ish. Some for me had too much 80s stuff involved, so we wanted to make it as modern as possible.

Was it obvious which songs would have vocals?

Hayo Lewerentz: It just turned out of the melodies sometimes. With U96 on our own, we don’t use too many vocals. We don’t have songs like with verses, choruses and stuff like this. So we mainly use sparse vocals on our tracks. We always did that. We’re not a vocal band in the same way as other bands who write three-minute pop songs with verses and chorus bits. We don’t do that.

Going back a bit, did you have any idea “Das Boot” would be such a big hit and become the track U96 is most known for?

Hayo Lewerentz: No, we were completely surprised by that success. Absolutely. We were indie artists in our little studio in a rotten part of Hamburg. We were creating this track within one night, just for the fun of it, really. And then some of our friends took it to a record label. We didn’t even do it ourselves. For some reason, someone liked it and put it out, and it got to number one for nearly 14 weeks in Germany, which is amazing.

At the time, many big techno songs had some recognizable hook, like a sample or re-use of a well-known melody. What inspired you to utilize the “Das Boot” theme?

Hayo Lewerentz: The original melody was out of the film “Das Boot,” and it was not written by us. It was written by Klaus Doldinger, who was the composer, and we always liked the song very much. Alex [Christensen ] was with us at the time as a DJ in our project. He played the song sometimes to open up his set. So we suggested making a new version out of it in the techno context because the original is very classical.

You mentioned that ‘Das Boot’ was created very quickly. Have you tried to maintain this kind of immediacy in your creative process?

Hayo Lewerentz: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t; it depends on the song. We write songs very quickly. Sometimes, we’d just sit for an hour and have two songs ready in our heads. But then, when it comes to the production process, we sometimes fiddle around with one song for ages. And another song takes only two days. So it’s really open, but it depends on the material.

Do you tend to keep up with the latest musical technology?

Hayo Lewerentz: We are equipment junkies, to be honest. So we fiddle around with everything, and if some new hardware or software synths are coming out, we get them. Not all of , obviously, but the ones we like, we get them, and we fiddle around a lot with them. We are tech nerds.

Is there anything that’s emerged during your career that has had a particular impact on how you work?

Hayo Lewerentz: The most useful thing is that you can create a whole production on a laptop these days. We don’t do that, but we can do it if we want. So I think that’s a really big advantage for many musicians. Also, the sales and marketing sort of thing—that you can release your stuff, anytime you like, everything you like. You don’t have to have to ask labels anymore. This was a problem for us in the nineties, where we always had to talk to Universal, our label, who told us, “Yeah, we need another hit single,” and stuff like that. We don’t want to hear that anymore, to be honest.

Do you have anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?

Hayo Lewerentz: At the moment, we’re working on promoting this album, and we create songs every day. So I can’t really tell you; we just don’t know. We won’t release any more new stuff for this year because we have this album working at the moment. But we are looking into the next year, and we are planning on our live shows. We want to do live shows; many people ask us to do them, especially together with Wolfgang.